Chicago Theatre Review
Songs of Love and Loss
I’ve Got the World on a String – City Lit Theatre
The music of Harold Arlen was the highlight of certain Broadway musicals and some of the biggest classics of the silver screen. His songs achieved popularity when they were covered by the top singers and big bands of the day. They spanned the 1920’s through the late 1970’s, when Mr. Arlen was finally inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame. Arlen’s music were songs of love and loss. They were sung and recorded by the likes of Judy Garland, Ethel Waters, Groucho Marx, Ray Bolger and others, and they became standard classics, much like the music of Berlin, Porter and the Gershwins.
Before his death, Chicago director and theatre writer Sheldon Patinkin had been working on a musical revue based on Arlen’s music, much in the same vein as his Jeff Award-winning “Putting on the Ritz: the Music of Irving Berlin.” Unfortunately, Mr. Patinkin passed away before his new work could be completed and presented to the public. However, Sheldon’s niece Karen generously turned over Mr. Patinkin’s materials to City Lit Theatre, including an outline for his work-in-progress, and all his notes and a list of songs to be included. Artistic director Terry McCabe and musical arranger and pianist Kingsley Day, close friends and collaborators of Mr. Patinkin, worked to complete the revue, which City Lit is now premiering. Mr. McCabe also directs the production and Mr. Day serves as musical director and accompanist for the six actors singing Arlen’s music.
The revue is comprised of 25 of Harold Arlen’s finest pieces of music. Most of the songs sung in this show are pretty well-known, although there are a few pleasant surprises among the less familiar ballads. The work is set in 1945 at a New York bar over two evenings. Two loving couples wander into this Manhattan dive, an establishment operated by a man and woman bartending team. Throughout the 80-minute, two-act revue, a story sort of unfolds through the various solos, duets and group numbers. Accompanied by Kingsley Day on piano, Harmony France, Rachel Klippel, Jennifer T. Grubb, Chris Logan, Jameson Wentworth and Varris Holmes offer up Arlen’s musical monologues and dialogues about the nature of love and loss.
The first act introduces two couples who, during the course of the evenings, find love and lose it. The program opens with the show’s title tune, delivered with optimistic zeal by Harmony France and the company. Jennifer T. Grubb teaches us that “Happiness is a Thing Called Joe” and Varris Holmes suggests that, actually, “It’s Only a Paper Moon.” Rachel Klippel claims love is just “That Old Black Magic,” Jameson Wentworth celebrates with “Hooray for Love,” and Chris Logan delivers the hauntingly beautiful and melancholy “One For My Baby.”
The second act serves up a medley from Arlen’s magnum opus, “The Wizard of Oz.” Through it, Varris imagines the consequences “If I Were King of the Forest,” Jennifer, Harmony and Jameson each take a turn with “If I Only Had a Brain…a Heart…the Nerve,” and Rachel concludes this section with an enchanting rendition of “Over the Rainbow.” Jameson then becomes a romantic meteorologist with his soulful “Stormy Weather” and Harmony sheds a tear telling about “The Man Who got Away.” Jennifer and Varris advise the gang to “Lose That Long Face.” Then Chris and Jameson pair up for one of the best numbers of the evening, “Last Night When We Were Young.” Rachel and Harmony share how they’re caught “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” and the evening ends on a high note, with everyone back together again, reminding us to always “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive.”
Terry McCabe has directed his production with simplicity and style, staged inside Ray Toler’s realistic, circa 1940’s barroom setting. Tom Kieffer’s costumes are appropriately period and Brigitte Ditmar’s spirited choreography keeps the joint a-jumping, very much in the style of the War years. The evening, which passes by all too quickly, is a pleasant reminder of Harold Arlen’s remarkable musical talent. Teaming up with such great lyricists as Billy Rose, Johnny Mercer, Ted Koehler, Ira Gershwin and Yip Harburg Arlen’s music recalls a more innocent time when a simple song could tell an entire story…about love and about loss. Sheldon Patinkin would’ve been very proud.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented March 4-April 10 by City Lit at their theatre in the Edgewater Presbyterian Church, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 773-293-3682 or by going to www.citylit.org.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com